Steven Pressfield’s new book, Turning Pro, is tough love for fiction writers. Pressfield’s thesis is that what ails some writers is they are living as amateurs. The solution is to turn pro.
“Turning pro is free, but it’s not easy,” Pressfield wrote. There is a lot of hard-earned wisdom in this book, but the nugget that stuck for me was this: “The difference between an amateur and a professional is in their habits. A professional has professional habits.”
Many people who aspire to be a writer or excel in other professions engage in what Pressfield called “shadow careers.” Shadow careers are metaphors for what people want. “Are you getting your Ph.D. in Elizabethan studies because you’re afraid to write the tragedies and comedies you know you have inside you? Are you living the drugs-and-booze half of the musician’s life without actually writing the music?”
The attributes of a shadow life are denial and addiction. Addiction, Pressfield wrote, is “excruciatingly boring. It’s boring because it’s predictable – the lies, the evasions, the transparent self-justifications and self-exonerations.”
Many artists are addicts, but they are just running away from their craft. “We enact the addiction instead of embracing the calling. Why? Because to follow the calling requires work. It’s hard. It hurts.” Amateurs give in to what Pressfield called Resistance. “Resistance hates two qualities above all others: concentration and depth. Why? Because when we work with focus and we work deep, we succeed.”
Resistance, on the other hand, keeps the amateur unfocused. “Have you checked your email in the last half hour?”
Another quality of the amateur is narcissism. “He continuously rates himself in relation to others, becoming self-inflated if his fortunes rise, and desperately anxious if his star should fall.” The amateur lets fear paralyze him, is easily distracted and seeks instant gratification.
Turning pro changes your life. “When we turn pro, we stop running from our fears. We turn around and face them.” The pro structures his hours differently. “We plan our activities in order to accomplish an aim. And we bring our will to bear so that we stick to this resolution.”
One of the most valuable parts of this book is a list from his earlier work, The War of Art, of the qualities of a professional. Among these are:
- The professional shows up every day.
- The professional stays on the job all day.
- The professional is committed over the long haul.
- For the professional, the stakes are high and real.
- The professional is patient.
- The professional seeks order.
- The professional demystifies.
- The professional acts in the face of fear.
- The professional accepts no excuses.
- The professional plays it as it lays.
- The professional is prepared.
In Turning Pro, Pressfield lists some additional qualities. The professional is courageous, will not be distracted (“The amateur tweets. The pro works.”), is ruthless with himself, has compassion for himself, lives in the present, and defers gratification. And, the professional does not wait for inspiration. “He knows that when the muse sees his butt in the chair, she will deliver.”
The professional does the work for itself and no other reason. “When we do the work for itself alone, our pursuit of a career (or a loving or fame or wealth or notoriety) turns into something else, something loftier and nobler, which may never even have thought about or aspired to at the beginning. It turns into a practice.”
While Turning Pro focuses on the habits of writers, Pressfield also throws in some craft advice. He urges writers to work over their heads, write what they don’t know, and take what the defense gives you. Professionals also know how to play hurt, to keep writing when facing adversity.
On a recent Saturday morning, I slept in. It was a brilliant summer day and I was headed to the beach later. That evening I ran into a published author, who told me he awoke at six o’clock in the morning and wrote for a couple of hours. He was finished writing before I even woke up that morning. That’s what I call a pro.
Do you see yourself as a pro? What habits make you a pro?